Today I am thirty-five years old: the age my mother was when she had me. Since she’s now seventy, that makes me half her age. And just about twice the age as my seventeen-and-eighteen-year-old students.
I don’t believe that age means anything inherently, but I also don’t believe it’s “just a number.” There are appreciable, material changes to my physical being that have made themselves known in my sleep patterns and the color of a few of the hairs on my head. I’m not complaining–these are pretty low-level changes, but even as I joke about upgrading my skin care regimen, I am acutely aware of how important it will be for me to accept my body’s limitations as I age. Over the past three years, I’ve watched my wife, Jill, care for her elderly parents; I’ve see firsthand how the refusal to be in reality about one’s physical capabilities creates a terrible burden on caregivers and impacts the quality of life of those who need, but deny that they need, care. Jill and I are vehemently committed to aging with as much grace and acceptance as we possibly can; we’ve put structures in place to help insure that our son, Shiv, does not end up in the position that we find ourselves. (I’m definitely the only thirty-five-year-old I know with a long term care insurance policy.) I know it won’t be simple, that this will be a conversation we return to again and again, to hold ourselves accountable to the lessons that this season of life is teaching us.
As cheesy as it sounds, learning to pay attention to the rhythms and adjustments that different periods of my life have to offer has become my overall M.O. Not saying that I’ve got it down pat, but I’ve definitely deepened my capacity to sit with difficulty, to recognize the growth opportunity it brings, and to hold onto the knowledge that I will never, ever be done growing. Just when I think that I’m in pretty good shape, something comes along to humble and remind me that this human work is the real work.
In thirty-five years, I’ve done a lot of school, over a decade’s worth of teaching, written two books, adopted a child, watched a parent die, and spent fifteen-and-a-half years in partnership with the most incredible person I know. So while I know thirty-five won’t seem significant to some–I’ve had several folks recently tell me “Oh, you’re still so young” or “You’re just a baby!”–it feels like something to me. I’ve lived a lot of life in these years, made a bunch of mistakes, learned a shit-ton. I really like who I am and am proud of the fact that my life has been shaped by my own hands and my reactions to circumstances.
Because I work with teenagers, I am extra-sensitive to the fact that wisdom does not necessarily come with age; I know a lot of eighteen-year-olds who are a heck of a lot wiser than a lot of so-called “adults.” It’s unfair to discount someone else’s life experience simply because they are younger than you; theirs is still a full and complex life, no matter what the age. With my students, I work to be extra-mindful never to discount or discredit their experience or to act as if I know better. Maybe I have a bit more practice as this being a human business, but I’m nowhere near mastering it. They often have just as much (if not more) to teach me than I have to teach them.
So, I figure today is as good as any to reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, and where I hope to go. I know enough to know that life is indeed what happens when you’re busy making other plans, so I’ve mostly forgone the planning for intentions and imaginings. I’ve learned to lean into and trust the inklings and inclinations that tug at my gut even though I cannot rationally determine how they might fit into the future. And I’ve gotten a bit better at remaining present in the moment–being right here, right now, and recognizing this precious life for what it is: a privilege and a joy. I hope I get to keep doing it for a while longer.
In the spirit of birthdays & wisdom, here’s a completely arbitrary list of 35 things I’ve learned, in no particular order:
- Never trust people who are rude to waiters or other folks in the service industry. Associate yourself instead with generous tippers.
- Wear sunscreen, even when you think you don’t need it. Even if you’re brown.
- Marry someone smarter than you. Dinner table conversation will never be boring, and you will spend your life learning from and with your spouse.
- Grief is a sneaky, tricksy, & utterly devastating beast. Never underestimate it.
- It’s worth spending money and being inconvenienced to be present at the weddings of your closest friends.
- You are not what you own.
- You are not what you produce.
- You are not what you look like.
- Feelings are real, but they aren’t always true.
- Depression and anxiety are liars, and they will trick you into believing all kinds of things. They will dig a hole so deep that you can’t climb out of it alone; go get help. Do not be ashamed of needing it.
- Give genuine and extravagant compliments. It’s always worth whatever awkwardness you feel you may be risking.
- No matter how poor you are, don’t sell your books.
- The people in your life cannot read your mind. No matter how obvious you think you’re being, they will not know how you feel until or unless you tell them.
- When the idea of something (especially some sort of change), scares you, in a thrilling sort of way, that’s a pretty good sign that you should go for it.
- If you don’t know your values, you can’t live according to them.
- Always do what you say you’re going to do. Be reliable.
- Lying to impress people makes you feel like trash.
- The people whom you think have it all together? They don’t. I promise.
- No one ever regretted getting a thank-you note in the mail.
- No one ever regretted saving for retirement, either.
- Trader Joe’s makes the best shave cream. It’s honey mango, smells amazing, and protects my very sensitive skin. I recommend.
- Stop saying “yes” to things you don’t actually want to do.
- Real friends don’t care if your floor is clean or not.
- If you were wrong or if you screwed up, apologize. Do it for real, do it well, don’t make excuses. People will respect you for it.
- Keep good-quality butter out on room temperature. Major life upgrade.
- If you were raised in a trauma or violence-free home, you have an incredible advantage over others who didn’t. You’d be amazed at how many others didn’t.
- Following major life events (a birth, a death, an illness), support tends to drop off about four to six weeks later. That’s when you can really make yourself useful by leaving some food in a cooler on the porch, or asking when you can come hold the baby so a parent can go take a shower or making plans to get your grieving friend out of the house.
- Librarians are heroes, and they really love answering questions and solving problems. Utilize them! It’s probably the best thing your taxes pay for.
- Go vote. Even if you feel cynical about it. Just go.
- Don’t lie to children, because they always know.
- The people we love will invariably, at some point in our life, disappoint us. And we will disappoint them, sometimes without even realizing it. Once we’re made aware, the best we can do is take responsibility and work to do better in the future. When someone else does this for you, forgive them.
- Strong marriages do not happen by accident. Contrary to what all the songs say, love is, in fact, not enough. You’re gonna have to do some work.
- If you witness a friend treat another friend badly, be prepared for them to do that to you someday, too. It’s just a matter of time.
- Be honest with your partner(s) in bed. It’s worth it.
- “Every day, you have less reason / not to give yourself away.” – Wendell Berry